The 1999 GMC Yukon Denali was the first vehicle that made me feel like a boss. Now, I don’t mean boss in the Bruce Springsteen or Michael Douglas in Wall Street way. No, I am talking Rick Ross – atmospheric levels of boss.
The thing just had a swagger, a kind of confidence that not even a Range Rover could match. While the Rangie felt effete and flew at 10,000 feet, the Denali felt like it should smash through walls and overthrow governments just as well as it could take you to the Grammies in style.
Although full of gravitas and horsepower, the Denali wasn’t without its flaws. The interior, for example, was a dreadful sea of ill-fitting plastic and 1980s digital green instrumentation.
General Patton’s ghost would have felt at home behind the wheel of the first-gen Denali, as its handling and braking characteristics were on par not with modern luxury SUVs but rather with World War II troop transporters.
Still, though, it had an X-factor you couldn’t deny. And for that reason, I loved it.
A new, brave interior
Climbing behind the wheel of the 2015 Yukon XL Denali, I was trepidatious. In the years since the Denali was created, General Motors changed a lot. I hope the Denali had as well. Gravitas and power were no longer enough in 2014. The GMC would need some serious refinement to justify its existence.
I only needed to hit the ignition button to see the Denali had finally joined the 21st century. At the center of the instrument cluster, a bright TFT digital display lit up, mimicking a series of dials, including oil temp, coolant temp, fuel level, and battery charge. Beneath that was another digital display with more vehicle information. Best of all, however, topping the high-tech dash was a Head-up Display (HUD) with lane departure warnings, speedo, and compass.
That dash, too, was a sight for sore, American eyes. No longer a slab of hard plastic with gaps wide enough to fit a medium-sized sandwich, the 2015 Denali dash is soft to the touch, muscularly sculpted, and not as confused as the Chevrolet Tahoe or Suburban dash, which don’t seem to be able to decide what they want to be: tough or refined.
At the center of the cockpit-like center command center – surrounded by real wood and real aluminum trim – is an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment unit that can mechanically lift to reveal a storage cubby, complete with USB port. Like the GMC Sierra, that’s not the only USB that the Denali sports, it has several throughout the cabin. Your toys will never be without juice inside a GMC.
Oh, and partway through the model year, GM will begin offering 4G LTE wireless hotspot in the Denali. That means you will rarely be without Internet for your toys as well.
Every time I see a 6.2-liter V8 from GM, I immediately think of it as a Corvette motor, whether it is or not. This one might as well be considered a Corvette V8, though. It creates 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque. This, as GMC is quick to point out, is the most torque of any engine in a full-size SUV.
Amazingly, thanks to a stout six-speed automatic, direct injection, variable valve timing and a truly seamless cylinder deactivation system, the 6.2 achieves 15 mpg city and 21 mpg highway on two-wheel drive models. That’s on Premium fuel, mind you. So efficiency is essential.
I should also mention that you can’t get the 6.2 in the Chevrolet Tahoe or Suburban anymore. So if you want over 400 ponies in your full-size people mover, you’ll need to get the GMC.
On pavement as it is on paper
So many cars seem fantastic on paper. In reality, though, many fall flat. The Denali, delightfully, did not.
For as massive and heavy as the Yukon XL is, the 6.2-liter is still able to move that gargantuan body in a serious way. Stomp the skinny pedal to the floor and the Denali rears up and takes off with a sound that would make an American muscle fan well up a bit.
For as massive and heavy as the Yukon XL is, the 6.2-liter is still able to move that gargantuan body in a serious way.
I won’t begin to pretend to know of a 0 to 60 time, but I’d peg it in the high 5.0s or the low 6.0s. I’ll admit, this is probably a bit optimistic for a truck that weighs 7,500 pounds. Let me have my dreams, won’t you?
Once my fellow journalist co-pilot and I got the Denali off the highway, we tested its handling abilities. Amazingly, the Denali doesn’t just go in a straight line. With the standard magnetic ride control suspension, it can handle the bendy bits, too.
We detected more jitteriness in Denali’s handling than we had in the 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe, but it was nonetheless wildly impressive. The feel of the electronic power steering wasn’t much. But what it lacked in steering feel, the GMC made up for in braking power. Come into a corner too hot and you can get on the brakes without imagining yourself upside down in a ravine. This is always a place big GM trucks have fallen flat. Thankfully, for 2015, it’s been solved.
I know and hope most Denali drivers – outside of the Secret Service – will never drive the truck as hard as I did. It’s nice to know, though, that it can handle it.
Out with the old …
As mentioned earlier, I have an affinity for the Denali – almost in spite of itself. When I climbed behind the steering wheel of the 2015, I hoped my fondness for the Denali wouldn’t be unjustified … or downright dashed.
I am happy to say, it’s not; it’s been reaffirmed and solidified.
GMC told me that it sells more Denali models than Land Rover or Jaguar sell cars in the U.S. For a while, that fact was a blight on the American public’s automotive taste. Now, though, it’s admirable. GMC finally has a truck worthy of its sales success.
The Denali, while still not as refined or as off-road capable as a Land Rover, it’s backed its grit with technology and torque. And, for that, I still love it.
- Exterior styling
- Interior craftsmanship and quietness
- 6.2-liter V8 muscle
- Confident handling and braking
- Interior technology and connectivity
- Uneven-road suspension jitters